April 21: It is the world’s most definitive work on the most global language, but the Oxford English Dictionary may be disappearing from bookshelves forever.
Publishers fear the next edition will never appear in print form because its vast size means only an online version will be feasible, and affordable, for scholars.
It’s all academic for now anyway, they say, because the third edition of the famous dictionary, estimated to fill 40 volumes, is running at least 20 years behind schedule.
Michael Proffitt, the OED’s first new chief editor for 20 years, said the mammoth masterpiece is facing delays because “information overload” from the Internet is slowing his compilers.
His team of 70 philologists, including lexicographers, etymologists and pronunciation experts, has been working on the latest version, known as OED3, for the past 20 years.
Michael Proffitt revealed to Country Life magazine that the next edition will not be completed until 2034, and likely only to be offered in an online form because of its gargantuan size.
“A lot of the first principles of the OED stand firm, but how it manifests has to change, and how it reaches people has to change,” said the 48-year-old Edinburgh-born editor.
Work on the new version, currently numbering 800,000 words, has been going on since 1994. The first edition, mooted in 1858 with completion expected in 10 years, took 70 years.
“Although the Internet has made access easier,” said Proffitt, “it’s also created the dilemma of information overload. In 1989, we looked for five years’ recorded usage before a word entered the dictionary.
“Now, it’s 10 years because there is so much more material to sift through. We look not only for frequency and longevity, but also breadth of use because, once a word enters the OED, it doesn’t come out. It’s a permanent record of language. I don’t think of it as a purely linguistic document, but as a part of social history.”
He said his team working on the definition of new entries has a target of 50 to 60 words a month, slower than in the past because the world wide web has created so much more source material.
Proffitt said: “I averaged about 80 when I started because, in 1989, we didn’t have computers on our desks, so there was a limit to how much you could research. The library was our primary resource.”
The challenge facing his team was highlighted by associate editor Peter Gilliver, who once spent nine months revising definitions for the word “run”, currently the longest single entry in the OED.
“We can hear everything that’s going on in the world of English for the last 500 years, and it’s deafening,” he told the New York Times.
If the new dictionary is printed — and publishers Oxford University Press say a print version will only appear if there is sufficient demand at the time — it will comprise 40 volumes, double the length of the second edition in 1989.
Almost one third of a million entries were contained in the 21,730 pages of the second version of the OED, which sells for £750 and had been online since 2000, where it receives more than two million hits a month.
The latest electronic edition of the OED acknowledges the difficulties of producing commercially-viable print versions, saying: “The English language is far too large and diverse to be fully recordable in a dictionary, even one the size of the OED.”
Proffitt said the Internet represented a lifeline for giant reference works like the OED. “Strong works of reference have great future on the internet. The idea is to link from the context in which people are working directly into the OED: providing information at the point at which it’s needed.” Other planned innovations include linking the OED to a Historical Thesaurus developed over the past 30 years by a team in Glasgow, he said.